FOCUS ON TOWING
With a facelift, an extra 50Nm of torque and a new six-speed gearbox, we put Isuzu’s D-max to the tow test
Tow tester Dean Evans puts Isuzu’s rugged D-max ute under the hammer. How did it perform?
WITH UTES BECOMING INCREASINGLY POPULAR with families and displacing wagons and SUVS as the all-purpose vehicle, the likes of the Ranger, Hilux and Colorado have gone from rugged, compromised workhorses to fullyequipped, dressed up city and family run-arounds.
And though there’s a range of models across the makes, there’s a distinct style to each tier that identifies itself and pushes itself towards a particular buyer.
Isuzu’s D-max is built, marketed and drives like an old-school truck. And though that’s hardly surprising from a truck manufacturer, the D-max’s early 2017 facelift has brought a range of features that bring it more in line with what the modern ute has become.
Along with a new grille, daytime running lights and tailgate and other updates, the RT87 D-max introduces new transmissions.
They include a six-speed manual transmission that was fitted to the 4x4 Double Cab LS model that we’ve evaluated in this month’s tow test. The LS sits one rung under the top-spec LS-T in the D-max range and lists at $56,990.
The LT87 has already helped boost Isuzu ute sales, with the D-max now slipping inside the top 10 passenger vehicle sales for the first half of 2017, after finishing just outside it in 2016.
In new ute sales, the D-max sits in sixth position, in a battle with Nissan’s Navara, but it’s part of the leading pack of utes that set the towing standard of 3500kg.
LCV magazine last tested the D-max in late 2015, so it was good to reacquaint ourselves with the Isuzu – and we were quickly reminded of its truck-like feel, and marketing.
Though it has a list of mod-cons, including cruise control, navigation, Bluetooth, sidesteps and 17-inch alloys, it still has that utilitarian feel and purpose.
And Isuzu doesn’t apologise for that – quite the contrary, the ute’s truck heritage is a strong part of its marketing campaign.
But there are still minor niggles that other utes have overcome in recent years. For instance, the D-max has limited storage space,
specifically open places to dump the staples of phone, wallet and keys.
However, there are plenty of lidded storage areas in the centre console, above the glovebox and the dashboard top, among others dotted around the cab.
The lack of auto headlights is also a reminder of the past, lacking an auto mode, or even auto-off when the key is removed. Having to manually move the headlight switch on and off every time just feels so antiquated.
Another idiosyncrasy is the large temperature dial, which at night reflects into the rear window, into the interior mirror, into the driver’s eyes. Not a major issue, granted, but certainly a minor distraction.
Steering is adjustable for tilt only, not reach, but on the plus side, there’s a high seating position with great vision. The D-max also has a big eight-inch touch-screen, an intuitive navigation system, and a pair of handy USB ports for external audio and a 1A port for charging.
So there are frills, but essentially this is a machine that is designed to work and pay the bills.
Part of that feeling is the engine. It’s a big 3.0-litre four-cylinder that is used across the entire range. It’s a common-rail turbodiesel that sports the same 130kw as the previous model, but benefits from an extra 50Nm of peak torque, available between 2000 and 2200rpm.
The extra torque has been achieved by several minor injector, mechanical and electronic updates. The engine is rattly – and there’s no mistaking it’s a diesel – but it’s one of the biggest four-cylinders on sale, and it eats up challenges.
Our towing challenge for the D-max was $65,000 worth of 2011 Leisure Line 6.1-metre caravan, four-berth with twin single beds, thanks to Ohaupo Caravans who loaned it for our testing.
Equipped with beds, kitchen, microwave, TV, toilet and shower, it was one of Ohaupo’s stock of caravans that offer relaxing getaways by simply hitching up and heading off.
At just under 2000kg, add in our gear, an extra passenger and full grey and clean water tanks, and we’re looking at just over 2000kg, which should be a relative walk in the park for the D-max.
That weight is around 60 percent of the ute’s total towing capacity, and around 85 percent of its capacity without electric brakes.
Arriving in Ohaupo, we’re easily hooked up within a few minutes and on the road, bound towards Raglan, on a route offering a mix of suburban, motorway and country roads, with a few decent hill climbs and descent tests.
The first obvious clue to the D-max’s grunt is how it powers away with barely a change in pace. I just witnessed the caravan get hooked up minutes earlier, but had to take a cursory glance in the mirrors to ensure it was still attached.
The low-speed torque and response of the engine and the control of the manual gears allows the D-max the luxury of effortless acceleration.
Waikato’s wet winter means we’re being poured down upon, though as we hit the motorway, powering up to 90km/h without a hint of hindrance.
The gearbox slots into fifth, then sixth, and cruise control is activated, with revs sitting on 1600 in sixth. And nothing is thought of it until arriving into Hamilton 20 minutes later.
In fact, it’s definitely a better ute with weight on the back, as it calms down the ride quality which is bouncy and unsettled when unladen.
That’s the impressive aspect of the D-max – and of any good towing vehicle – that it does the job without issue, with the Leisure Line tracking straight and only making its extra width felt as the road narrows in places.
From Hamilton, we head west towards the hills, giving the D-max a chance to work a bit harder.
As we reach a long, medium grade hill, it powers up in sixth, but as revs drop to 1400rpm, a downshift to fifth adds another 200rpm.
And though it’s steady and just holding speed, another downshift to fourth bumps revs back over 2000rpm and the D-max takes off.
The engine just loves working hard at low revs, and though 2000rpm is the magic number in the top-two gears, in the lower gears it’ll drop to 1200rpm before requiring a downshift. It then pulls cleanly to the 4000rpm redline.
The shift action is quick and light enough to shuffle between ratios at speed. It’s not the best box around, and selecting third sometimes felt like shifting a broom handle through a bucket of cricket balls, but
with the right revs and right shift strength, it proved capable without being remarkable.
As we reach Raglan, it’s really been an easy trip, the caravan’s width the only real driving concern.
As the weather clears enough for some photos and video (see our Facebook page), the fuel consumption gauge reveals we’ve increased useage around 20 percent: motorway miles were showing around 8.2 litres/100km/h before towing, and 10.4 litres/100km while towing.
We also put the D-max up against our performance timing gear and it proved itself more than competent, with 0-60km/h in 4.6 seconds, on the way to 11.2 second for the 100km/h sprint.
My biggest grievance came with the six-speed gearbox, specifically having reverse gear slot alongside first gear.
Toyota did this many years ago with the first six-speed Celica, and quickly rectified it with a lock-out collar.
But too many times than I care to count, I found myself accidently selecting reverse gear instead of first.
Editor Mike also found the same problem, and it’s particularly worse when under duress, such as a three-point turn, or rushed selection. Though there’s a warning beeper, if the radio is on, or there’s other road/ambient noise, it’s easy to miss.
Some may never have the problem, or better still, choose the new six-speed auto. And maybe they won’t be bothered by the manual headlight switch, the temperature display reflecting in the mirror, or the unladen ride quality, the rattly diesel engine noise or the lack of open cabin pockets.
And for drivers who can look past largely trivial issues like that, there is a rugged, masculine, extremely competent and comfortable workhorse in the D-max.
With nine models in the range, from single, space and double cab, to 4x2 and 4x4, there’s plenty of choice in Isuzu’s D-max line-up , with all models using the same 3.0-litre engine and gearboxes.
We came away pleasantly surprised and impressed by the D-max LS’S towing ability. It’s certainly nowhere near maxed out.
Our thanks to Ohaupocaravans.co.nz for supplying the caravan for this test.
Above: D-max made light work of towing combined load of around – or just over – two tonnes. Facing page: Latest version of Isuzu’s D-max ute gets revised grille and headlight treatment, new six-speed manual gearbox and Euro 5 engine.
Rotary dial control cabin temperature. Air-conditioning and ventilation switches are mounted in circular display.
Large and clear reversing camera made it easy to line up the ute’s towball with the caravan’s hitch.
Tow load for our test was a Leisure Line 6.1-metre caravan, loaned by Ohaupo Caravans.
D-max LS has a lockable tailgate.